20 August, 2016

Returning to Skokholm

A couple of weeks back I received a message from Ian Beggs, a regular guest at Skokholm Bird Observatory who stayed there for two weeks whilst I was assistant warden. He was driving back to Skokholm for a week of bird ringing and wondered if I wanted to fill up a spare seat in his car. There were no two ways about it, returning to Skokholm has been top on my list of things to do ever since I left the island two years ago. A quick exchange with wardens Richard & Giselle and it turned out I had a bed to sleep on for the week!

Having spent a summer and half an autumn on the island in 2014, Skokholm has a very special place in my heart, and the whole visit was a trip down memory lane. Everything was where I'd left it, bar a couple of humongous boulders which had dislodged and tumbled down into the sea. After a couple of days of mist, wind and horizontal rain, we were basking in sunshine for the remainder of the week, intensifying the warm colours of Skokholm's Old Red Sandstone and giving the island's cliffs their characteristic red-brown hue.

It was great to be back, catching up with old friends and making new ones. There's never a dull moment on the island, with fellow guests including several BTO seabird researchers who were fitting radio-tracking devices onto Storm-petrels, and award-winning wildlife photographer Sam Hobson who had come to Skokholm with a vivid image in his mind of the perfect Manx Shearwater photograph to capture.

Every square inch of Red Sandstone on Skokholm is carpeted in various maritime lichens, some being extremely rare like the delicate Golden Hair Lichen below...

Sam and I discovered a Basking Shark just off the lighthouse cliffs one afternoon - the first I'd ever seen and a rare sight around Pembrokeshire waters. We watched it slowly cruise east towards the mainland, dorsal fin and tail barely breaking the surface as it battled against the turbulant sea in an effortless and unperturbed manner. Unfortunately, by the time I'd mustered up enough phone reception to alert the other islanders the shark was moving into bright glistening waters directly below a hot sun and we lost sight of it as the first 'twitchers' arrived.

Basking Shark twitch

North Haven

Looking out towards Pembrokeshire - Skomer on the left, Marloes on the right and my feet in the middle

Painted white stones mark the various paths that run across the island

The farm complex at sunset

30 July, 2016

Breckland moths

I opted for a change of scenery this week and made the drive up to Suffolk to visit my grandparents. Conveniently for me, they live in a wildlife-rich part of the county known as the Brecks; a unique landscape characterised by low-lying grassy heaths, big skies, sandy sun-parched soils and crooked Scot's Pine trees. Their garden backs out onto classic Breckland habitat, and I set up a couple of moth traps there during my stay with them...

 Latticed Heath

 Pediasia contaminella

 Epiblema foenella

Beautiful China-mark

Brown China-mark

 Mere Wainscot

Antler Moth

True Lover's-knot

Apotomis lineana

 Catoptria pinella

Brown-line Bright-eye

But apart from that, I didn't really catch anything.

22 July, 2016

Jeans and heat

Stigmella lapponica

Stigmella luteella

Stigmella continuella

The scorching daytime heat in recent days has sent most animals scarpering for the shade, as I found out when I decided to visit Esher Common in 30°C midday heat on Tuesday - wearing a pair of baggy jeans. I soon realised that the protection given by jeans against horseflies wasn't outweighing the uncomfortable level of torridity below the waist, especially given that there were no horseflies on the wing in the heat. I think I've learned my lesson for next time.

A couple of Brilliant Emeralds were hunting in the shaded corner of Black Pond and Small Red Damselflies were everywhere, but the only things willing to oblige for photographs were a handful of leaf-mining Stigmella moths. A bit of rummaging around resulted in three different species, all quite easily distinguished from each other using small differences in the structure and contents of their feeding patterns.

19 July, 2016

Emperor in the oaks

I recently managed to have a catch up with Dave Boyle, ex-warden on Skomer back in the UK briefly to renew his visa before heading out to the Chatham Islands to co-ordinate conservation efforts for the endemic Chatham Petrel. Dave was keen to catch up with the enigmatic Purple Emperor whilst back in the country, and the offer of a lift was too tempting for me to resist.

We arrived at Alice Holt Forest just as the first rays of morning sunlight began to scatter through the trees, warming up the woodland ride along which Purple Emperors are known to descent down from their usual haunt high in the mature oaks to feed on salts kicked up from the path. In the previous few days, we'd caught wind of news from the forest that Emperors were actively feeding on the ground, perching on people's shoes and even landing on the head of an unsuspecting dog, so hopes were high that we'd be treated to a good display.

After a chilly start, by mid-morning the forest had heated up considerably, enticing White Admiral, Silver-washed Fritillary and Purple Hairstreak onto the wing at canopy level. Every large butterfly silhouetted against the sky had us craning our necks upwards in the hope that it was a Purple Emperor, but after a couple of hours standing in the 'hotspot' area without any luck, it became apparent that we needed a new strategy, and so we split up to cover more ground.

I retraced our steps towards the car, and it wasn't long before I caught a glimpse of a large butterfly effortlessly weaving in and out of the oak trees above me; gliding and swerving erratically in a manner that I'd never seen before from a butterfly. There was no doubting it - a Purple Emperor! I called Dave over, and he managed to fire off a couple of photographs with his telephoto lens, including this stunner:

Dave managed to perfectly encapsulate our typical views of the Emperor in this photo! 

Understandably, the Emperor was more interested in defending its patch of tree from rival males than worrying about providing us with a photographic opportunity, but every now and again it would take a rest on a leaf; catching the sun and showing off the stunning iridescent purple markings on the upperside of the wing.

Satisfied with captivating if tantalising views of Purple Emperor, we headed to the nearby Hankley Common - one of Surrey's finest examples of lowland heathland - and no sooner had we started walking than Dave calmly announced that he'd noticed a Sand Lizard basking amongst the heather in front of us. Having searched unsuccessfully for them on previous family holidays to Dorset, it took a double-take before I clocked that I was finally watching one of the UK's rarest reptiles in Surrey - only a few feet away!

Of course, I couldn't leave without a bit of micro-moth action...

 Ancylis uncella

 Sophronia semicostella

Aristotelia ericinella

10 July, 2016

What now?

All good things have to come to an end and I left Worcester last week on the morning that our house contract expired, bound for Surrey in a car that seemed to be packed full with ten times as much stuff than I arrived with. My university adventure has sped by, and despite often getting away with the bare minimum, my moth-related dissertation went down surprisingly well with the powers that be, and I've come away from it all with a first class honours degree in Conservation Ecology.

Moving home after three years of university and knowing that I have nothing separating me from the working world feels unsettling. I'm gutted to be leaving Worcester and all the great people I met there, but as has been reminded to me by the inevitable "so what are your plans?" conversation starters, now is as good a time as any to start considering possible paths to follow post-graduation.

I've got a few ideas in the works. The Natural History Museum's ID Trainers for the Future programme has intrigued me ever since it was first devised back in 2014 and I'm keen to apply for the final year of the scheme, even if it will be immensely sought after. Ecological consultancy, particularly as a seasonal field surveyor, is also something I'm looking into pursuing in the short-term, but if all else fails, postgraduate study is still on the cards if I can find the right Masters course for me. I'm already knee-deep in debt, so further loan accumulation won't be a shock to the system and I doubt I'll be in a position to start paying it back in the near (or distant!) future.

Ecology is my passion, but turning it into a profession is going to take persistence. Spilling out the ideas that have been whirling around in my head into a blog post is somewhat reassuring to my conscience that I haven't hit a loose end, and that there are opportunities around the corner. In the meantime, I'll carry on doing what I love. Wildlife will always provide me with endless fascination, and I'll try as hard as I can to make a living out of it.

Lace Border

Chalk Carpet

In other news, the south-facing slopes of the North Downs can be extremely productive for moths at this time of year, as I found out when I stopped off at White Down back on Thursday.

Argyresthia brockeella

Pempelia dilutella

Pyrausta ostrinalis

Argyresthia pruniana

Wild Strawberry

27 June, 2016

Unexpected tenants

I remember my elation when we were first given a tour around our student house and I found out that my bedroom had its own balcony. I zoned out for the rest of the viewing, not listening to a word the landlord was saying, and instead imagined all the ways I could turn the balcony into a wildlife haven. "There will be a couple of pots of Red Valerian here, some Verbena over there, and maybe a little wildlife pond in that corner" I pondered to myself, whilst the landlord discussed the terms and conditions of our contract with my housemates.

Fast forward to now, a few days before our contract runs out, and the balcony looks worse than it did when we took the house. My elaborate plans for it never materialised, and whilst the balcony has been a lovely spot to catch some evening rays, its wildlife value remains minimal.

Yes, those are traffic cones. We should probably give them back. 

Despite my lack of intervention, last week I lifted up a large paving slab and found these two fantastic beetles sheltering underneath. Whether they'd been on the balcony for a while, or were simply waiting out a rain shower will remain a mystery, but whatever their origin it's surprising to see them utilise such a meagre patch of habitat. Hopefully their tenancy wasn't too uncomfortable!

Chlaenius vestitus

Lesser Stag Beetle

14 June, 2016

Bookham Bugs

I was down south for the weekend, and stopped off at Bookham Common on Saturday for a few hours to take part in the monthly survey. Despite there being only three of us, we still tallied up a heap load of interesting critters, including some really impressive beetles.

 Agapanthia villosoviridescens

 Rhinoceros Beetle

Scaphidium quadrimaculatum

 Glyphipterix forsterella

 Grey Pug

 Coleophora kuehnella

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